One hundred and seventy years ago, this week, an American army, under the command of General Winfield Scott, marched westward out of the Mexican coastal town of Vera Cruz. Their destination: Mexico City.
The American siege of Vera Cruz included the first large scale amphibious operation ever conducted by United States military forces and reduction of what was considered the strongest coastal fortress in the Western Hemisphere at the time. Vera Cruz thereafter provided the vital port, opposite the Mexican capital, through which U.S. military forces flowed men and material for the campaign that culminated in the capture of the "Halls of Montezuma" and the capitulation of Mexican forces nearly six months later.
The war with Mexico had commenced officially nearly a year before. The war was a culmination of years of tensions with Mexico over expansion of the American Republic westward on the North American continent. The war has been portrayed, by the most vehement of its detractors, as naked American imperialism against a hapless neighbor. The truth is that the War with Mexico was closer to a war of liberation than a war of expansion.
Mexico's leader, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, a former brigadier in the Mexican army who had been instrumental in the overthrow of the constitutional monarchy established following Mexico's independence from Spain in 1821, had repealed Mexico's constitution of 1824 and declared himself dictator. The 1824 Constitution of the United States of Mexico, while not a completely faithful copy of the governing document of the nation to their north, did in fact include protections of the natural rights of man similar to those included in the U.S. Constitution. The 1824 Constitution had created a hybrid confederation/federation that allowed considerable governing autonomy to Mexico's twenty or so states and territories.
Settlers moving west into the Mexican territory of Texas took advantage of this governing autonomy and basically thumbed their noses at the relatively weak central government in Mexico City. Furthermore, Mexico had actually invited settlers to immigrate into Mexican lands -- specifically to areas that would provide a buffer between Mexico and hostile "native" American tribes. The emigrating "Anglos" weren't stupid and they settled in great numbers in safer and more fertile eastern parts of the Texas territory.
In response to what Mexicans began increasingly to perceive as a threat to Mexican control of their northern territories, Santa Anna's setting aside (in May of 1834) of the 1824 Constitution, on the surface, was designed to help bring those immigrants to heel. In practice, it also stripped Mexican citizens south of the Rio Grande of protections of their natural rights. Santa Anna's dictatorship became what all dictatorships become -- the accumulation of power in the hands of one man to the detriment of the lot of all others.
The most untold part of this is that not only did Anglo Texans rebel against Santa Anna's dictatorship, but several Mexican states south of the Rio Grande did, as well. Santa Anna put down the rebellion in the latter and, then, in 1836, marched on Texas. The defeat of a wing of the Mexican army (commanded by Santa Anna), at San Jacinto, resulted in a treaty (later repudiated by the Mexican congress) recognizing Texas' independence.
But, Texas and Mexico continued to differ over the boundary between the two. In fact, Mexico persisted in the assertion that all of Texas was still Mexican territory and Santa Anna was determined to reclaim it. Tensions continue to fester, particularly following formal admission of the Republic of Texas as a state in the United States of America in December of 1845. Both sides increased forces and fortifications along the intervening frontier amid Mexican threats to invade and reclaim Texas territory.
The spark that finally lit the fuse to war was the ambush and destruction, in late April of 1846, of a small U.S. Cavalry patrol, under the command of Captain Seth Thorton, by a large Mexican force in the disputed territory north of the Rio Grande. Newly inaugurated President James K. Polk seized on the "Thorton Affair," declaring to Congress that, "American blood has been shed on American soil." Polk asked for and a received a formal declaration of war from Congress. A flood of volunteers swelled the relatively small American Army over the next several months, and by summer's end enough forces were available to begin offensive operations to seize territory south of the Rio Grande.
By late winter in 1847, Mexican forces had been defeated in Northern Mexico, and the campaign to carry the fight to the Mexican capital began at Vera Cruz.
While far more volunteered to fight than could be enlisted, the war did have its political detractors. It should be noted, however, that most of the war's dissenters were far more worried about the acquisition of southern agricultural land that would strengthen the power of southern "slave-holding" states, than they were against a war to free their neighbors from dictatorship.
Perhaps most disappointing to the Colonel is that while the treaty that ended the war did cede the United States territory that would become California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming (half of the total territory then claimed by Mexico), the United States could have very easily taken ALL of Mexico and admitted ALL Mexican states into the Union. The latter course of action was favored by Polk's political party, the Democrats. Opposition to annexation of all of Mexico by the other party -- the Whigs -- was primarily based on the concern for tilting the scale decidedly in favor of then "slave-holding" states (all states had slaves). So, President Polk compromised and took only the northern half of Mexico.
Consider, for a moment, the ramifications of that compromise.
It certainly forestalled, and perhaps pre-ordained the ultimate result of, the cataclysmic civil war that engulfed the nation within a generation.
But, imagine the strength of an American Republic that, by the end of the 19th Century, had not only stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific north of the Rio Grande, but included territory stretching far into the tropics of Central America.
And, imagine the millions who would be living in freedom, safety, and prosperity far above the standard in which they find themselves today -- many of them living in failed states so unable to provide even the most basic of those natural human rights that mothers in those crime-ridden states are desperately sending their children, often unescorted, north to the United States.
Expansion of a republic to provide freedom, safety, and prosperity to millions is the most noble, and right, of intentions by which a republic can be motivated, and by which it can be measured.